It seems an absolute age since I wrote, let alone posted. As such this will be a summary of the last couple of weeks, hauled from my memory which is held together by scrolling back through the photos on my camera. Since we left Vientiane we have travelled further South through Savannakhet, Pakse and Si Phan Don (Laoation for 4,000 Islands). At present I am writing from the banks of the Four Thousand Islands, longboats shooting past on the Mekong and fishing nets bobbing up and down in the water. Electricity is only available from 6 PM to 10 PM and the town abounds with adorable kittens, most of them missing their tails. But let’s rewind a little… Let's leave Vientiane first.
We arrived at Savannakhet at about four thirty in the morning, having left Vientiane at eight o’clock the night before. Our sleeper bus was as sleeper friendly as an interrogation camp. We were in the back row of the bus which seats five people if they sit like dominoes and where the seats do not recline. Having paid double the price of everyone else on the bus, sleep was already elusive (rage was filling in for it). Next to me sat a garrulous Thai air conditioning engineer. He was affable and urbane, a lovely man though sadly of a generous size that flowed effortlessly from his seat and into half of mine. This problem only increased as he slumbered; we became very close. Nipun was on my other side and had it worse. The guy next to her had a serious case of the stares. Every time Nipun looked up he was looking right back at her. This would have been OK if he had been of a cheerful disposition, but rather than smile or say “Hello” he would only offer a detached, emotionless stare. It was a little bit creepy. What’s more there was not a lot we could we say because (a) he was in his seat and entitled to look wherever he wanted and (b) he would not have understood a word we said anyway. Our attempts at meeting and greeting met with a face that was a tabula erasa. It was a relief to get off the bus and join the mosquitoes on the hard wooden benching at the bus station until the sun came up.
We decided that as it was still so early we would walk into town. The Lonely Planet said that it was only about 400 metres into town after all. This proved to be patent nonsense, though was not helped by us taking a much longer route along the Mekong. Stray dogs barked and growled, locals laughed and eventually we hailed a tuk tuk that took us to the Saisouk Guest House. It was about 7 AM and already if felt like it was about thirty degrees. We took the AC room and then went to find breakfast. Savannakhet, in spite of my initial protestations about going there, was a beautiful old town. In parts it was positively crumbling away, the old brickwork exposed and paint peeling from structures. The town had once been the largest French trading and administrative centre south of Vientiane. Now it crumbles and other than the Casino remains a sleepy riverside town. As gambling is illegal in Thailand it seems that most of the trade in Savannakhet revolves around Thai’s who pop across the Mekong to play cards and roulette. In the evenings a food market sets up on the river bank and makes for the perfect setting for grilled chicken ands sun downers.
As Savannakhet town is small it can be exhausted in an afternoon. The surrounding countryside is far more rewarding though and we hired a tuk tuk driver to drive us through the paddy fields that line the roads (Savannakhet produces a huge amount of rice) and the lakes that are dotted around, finishing up at Dong Natad Provincial Protected Area. Our driver spoke not a word of English, but was so friendly and helpful. It was a great day. We got caught poaching berries from laughing locals, lost my sunglasses climbing a tree (not so great, they were Ray Bans) and visited one of South Laos’ oldest temples which is allegedly home to Buddha relics and surrounded by a courtyard of golden Buddha’s.
The heat had been getting oppressive and the air growing ever more
humid, so it was immense relief that night when the sky lit up and crackled and then gave way to a storm, the likes of which I have not seen since I left Zimbabwe. There is something wonderful about lying in bed beneath a corrugated iron roof, listening to the rain explode above you, the air thick with electricity and thunder. Over the course of the next day we met Louie and Geoff from Melbourne who became our mealtime companions and who we hope to see in the UK, ot who knows, Melbourne.
Our next stop was Pakse, made by bus again and this time the local variety which is always so much fun. During the six hour journey we stopped 11 times to drop off or pick up passengers and to purchase food such as barbequed chicken and skewered eggs that had then been boiled, freshly picked mushrooms and some things that I am happy not being able to identify. Lao music blasted from eight well positioned speakers and gradually the bus filled up with plastic chairs when the proper seating ran out.
Keen to crack on we only spent one full day in Pakse and went on a tour of the Bolevan Plateau. This included stopping off at a tea plantation, a coffee plantation and a few of the local zoo’s villages where bus loads of tourists are bought in to ogle at the locals. I find this all very disquieting and wonder how I would feel if twice a day (or more) ten people arrived at
my house and snapped numerous badly composed and lit pictures of me. It all feels a bit intrusive I think. The positives though (because that’s how we roll) were the waterfalls and stunning country side and the brilliant companions we made on the journey, this time from Switzerland (Mourizio and Daniela) and the Nethelands (Ninka). Our address book is growing steadily and when we get back, fiscally ruined from travel, weekends in Europe look good!
As mentioned we are now in the Four Thousand Islands, staying at Don Dhet before we make our way across the border and into Cambodia. Our bungalow is cheekily called the Holiday Inn and bears no relation what so ever to the chain we are all so familiar with. We tried, they will not accept our loyalty card. It is run by a fantastic local family with adorable kids who come play in the river each afternoon. They use empty water bottles tied together as floats and inflate plastic bags for a ball. No one speaks English but we all manage to understand each other. There is no electricity in our bungalow except for a few hours in the evening and at night the toilets are populated by poised, black scorpions (I counted four last night) that prowl the walls for moths. The island is home to the rare fresh water Mekong dolphins that have so far proved elusive to us, but that does not matter - the boat ride is otherworldly and Tolkien-esque with bent over trees and swift, dirty currents of water that boil around the myriad tiny islets in the river.
Today we (Sunday 31st May) we will be packing our bags and going across to Cambodia in the morning. I have just finished reading Loung Ung’s book “First They Killed My Father” about the genocide that occurred in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Watching the carefree children play in the river outside it is difficult to imagine that so recently, just across the border
, similar children were tortured, forced into labour and beaten to death to save bullets. That so many family’s lives were destroyed. The book is a non fiction work is outstanding, it is narrated in the first person by Loung, going back to when she was aged five. This account of Cambodia’s history is enormously compelling but difficult to read at times because of the sheer tragedy of what the Cambodians went through. The epigraph speaks volumes:
“From 1975 to 1979 - through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labour - the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population. This is the story of my survival: my own and my family’s. Though these events constitute my experience, my story mirrors that of millions of Cambodians. If you had been living in Cambodia during this period, this would be your story too.”
I find that a terrifying and hideous prospect. It leaves me with mixed feelings about the next leg of our journey. It is a country with such a recent history of human misery and suffering, of utterly mindless and senseless violence, but on the other hand home to country where the people are rumoured to be so very friendly and welcoming. I am sure that our time in Cambodia will be enriching in many ways and whilst sad to be leaving Laos, I am thrilled that tomorrow we will be on our way again.